The Avengers

The Avengers  is an American punk rock band formed in 1977 in San Francisco, California.  Their lead singer, Penelope Houston, is also a folk singer.  Their song “The American in Me”, was described by Peter Margasak, in an article for The Chicago Reader, as “one of the best-ever indictments of blind patriotism (and one that only grows more potent as the years pass)”.  (More from Wikipedia)
The Avengers formed in early 1977 and features lead vocalist Penelope Houston, with others in the classic line-up being drummer Danny Furious (later in Joan Jett and the Blackhearts)guitarist Greg Ingraham, and bassist Jimmy Wilsey (who later joined the backing band for Chris Isaak).  Having a somewhat grammatically challenged title, “We Are the One” is one of my favorite songs of all time, not just one of my favorite punk rock songs.  Behind a driving beat that is simply untoppable, and with verses about changing the world, the chorus goes:  “We are not Jesus (Christ) / We are not Fascists (Pigs) / We are not Capitalists (Industrialists) / We are not Communists / We are the One”. 
Penelope Houston, a native of Seattle met Danny Furious and Greg Ingraham at the San Francisco Art Institute, where they were students.  After James (Jimmy) Wilsey joined up in August 1977the Avengers became one of California’s most popular punk rock bands.  A three-song EP by the band came out in 1977 on Dangerhouse Records, featuring We Are the One, “Car Crash” and “I Believe in Me”; another the following year on White Noise Records had four other monsters:  “The American in Me”, “Uh Oh, “Corpus Christi”, and “White N----r”. 
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The Avengers’ records have a confrontational arrogance that is second to none.  The American in Me starts off:  “It’s the American in me that makes me watch the blood / Running out of the bullethole in his head / It’s the American in me that makes me watch TV / See on the news, listen what the man said / He said, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country / What’s your country been doing to you / Ask not what you can do for your country / What’s your country been doing to your mind?’” 
Writing for AllmusicMark Deming says of the band:  “One of the first and finest bands to emerge from San Francisco’s punk scene, the Avengers were originally together for only two years, and they didn’t release an album during that period.  But their passionate music and uncompromising viewpoints proved to be a major inspiration in a scene that would grow and flourish long after they broke up, and the handful of singles they left behind documented a band of uncommon power and force.  Just as importantly, lead singer Penelope Houston was one of the pioneering women of American punk, proving there was a place for female artists in the new music.” 
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Tensions in the band led to their break-up by mid-1979, before they were able to release a proper album.  Avengers, released in 1983 is a tough find these days; but Penelope Houston has it available as a CD-R on her website, and I managed to find a copy in an Atlanta-area record store this year.  John Dougan writes in the Allmusic review:  “Although it was released in 1983, this collection represents just about everything San Francisco’s late, great Avengers recorded from 1977-1978.  By contemporary standards, it’s by-the-book punk thrash:  Greg Ingraham’s guitar spews up hairball after hairball of distortion, while Penelope Houston snarls in her best impression of Johnny Rotten.  However, contemporary standards diminish what great music this was and what a great band they were.  Dozens of bands came in their wake, but few could recapture the excitement and ferocity of their sound.  Houston, who re-emerged years later as a folk-rocker, is in full fury on these 14 tracks, especially the youth culture solidarity anthem ‘We Are the One’ and the tale of desperation ‘Thin White Line’.  A few spins of this and you’ll hear how the Avengers influenced everyone from Black Flag to X.  Yes, they were that good.  A forgotten classic.” 
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The Avengers album that I have, The American in Me features four tracks that were produced by Steve Jones of Sex Pistols in late 1978.  The remainder of the CD is a June 1979 concert at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco, within days of the final break-up of the band.  Greg Ingraham had left the band when this music was made; he was replaced by Brad Kent (also known as Brad C--t, and formerly in Victorian Pork, D.O.A. and other important Canadian punk rock bands). 
Greil Marcus wrote the glowing and lyrical liner notes for the album; they start off:  “In 1977, ‘The American in Me’ was the torn flag flown by the Avengers.  Singer and writer Penelope Houston, guitarist Greg Ingraham, bassist James Wilsey, and drummer Danny Furious made up the best punk band in San Francisco, at moments the best in the country – and what they were claiming in ‘The American in Me’ was the country itself:  the country that the Avengers’ songs said didn’t want them, didn’t recognize them, didn’t hear them, wouldn’t listen.  They left themselves no room for irony. 
“‘We Are the One’, they announced; ‘What is “the One”?’ the song makes you ask.  ‘I am the one who brings you the future,’  [Penelope] Houston chants to end it.  ‘I am the one who buries the past’.  Everything about the thing sounds ridiculous, especially the glee you can hear in the band’s voices, the Oh-my-God-we-are-actually-pulling-this-off thrill of saying what you want to say right out loud, where everyone can hear you, free speech like the Batman signal in the sky, or a rock through the window that separates the true from the false.  Everything sounds ridiculous – except what the song actually sounds like, and the frightening conviction backing up every word.  No matter how sarcastic Houston was on stage, taunting the crowd between numbers, the songs said the Avengers meant exactly what they said or they meant nothing.  The American in Me could not be a joke.” 
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After I ordered one of Penelope Houston’s albums, The Pale Green Girl, I was struck by how strong the music was, how of a piece it was with the Avengers material.  Even though the guitars are muted, calling her solo albums “folk music”, as many rock critics do, does her a disservice if you ask me; she is more PJ Harvey than Judy Collins.  I wrote her a note and told her so, I think when I ordered The American in Me.  She thanked me in a short note and then wrote:  “I guess you can take the girl out of the punk band, but you can’t take the punk band out of the girl.”  She signed it “P”, and put a star at the top.  That handwritten note from Penelope Houston made with a Sharpie is one of the items that I miss most from what we lost in Hurricane Katrina
But as we were leaving the house to ride out the storm in Mobile, I saw several of my CD’s lying there and remembered how hard it was to find so many of them.  I grabbed a supermarket bag and a couple handfuls of those CD’s, including the Avengers and the Penelope Houston albums.  And am I glad I did! 
(March 2017)
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Items:    The Avengers 
Last edited: March 22, 2021